LISTEN: Zora Neale Hurston Performs Folk Poetry and Song from her Native Florida

The following guest post is by Ann Hoog, folklife specialist from the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. To celebrate Black History Month on this last day of February, Ann has written the following post on the Library’s extraordinary Zora Neale Hurston collections.

Among the American Folklife Center’s extensive collections of ethnography, folk song, and spoken word is the recorded voice of celebrated writer and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston. Included are songs and narratives recorded in Florida and Georgia in 1935 with fellow folklorists Alan Lomax and Mary Elizabeth Barnicle, three songs sung by Hurston for Lomax in Haiti in December 1936, nineteen songs and narratives performed by her and recorded by Florida Federal Writers’ Project colleague and folklorist Herbert Halpert, and six songs of a choir she led at the 1938 National Folk Festival in Washington, D.C.

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A smiling Zora Neale Hurston. Photo probably taken during the Lomax-Hurston-Barnicle recording expedition to Georgia, Florida, and the Bahamas, 1935.

Hurston grew up in Eatonville, Florida, and eventually went on to study anthropology at Barnard College and Columbia University. She studied under the notable Franz Boas, who inspired a generation of anthropologists including Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict. Her fieldwork during the 1920s-1930s was primarily conducted in African American communities of the South and Caribbean, where she collected the stories, music, and the oral poetry that fills the air of both work and leisure in everyday life. Hurston’s celebrated works such as Mules and Men (1935) and Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) contain the songs and narratives that filled her life both as a child and as a student of anthropology. Hurston was not only an artist in the writing of African American folklore and oral tradition, but also an artist in its performance.

Like her writings, her documentary performance style reflects a personal connection to this creative cultural output in which she embraced being both documenter and performer. Nineteen recordings of these performances, made for the WPA, are available as part of the online presentation Florida Folklife from the WPA Collections. In “Georgia Skin” Hurston describes and sings a gambling card game she observed at a turpentine camp in Florida during one of her 1939 fieldwork trips:

When the Principals have got their cards, and all the Pikers have got theirs … he’ll want them to put their bets down, and he’ll say, “Put the money on the wood and make the bet go good / And then again, put it in sight and say you will fight.”
And so they all get the bets down and then they holler, “Let the deal go down, boys, let the deal go down” and some of them will start singing it.

This explanation is followed by a recording of Hurston’s performance of the full song “Let the Deal Go Down” as it would be sung during the game. Woven together between chorus and verse is narration of what would be happening during the game including conversations and arguments that might occur between the players:

[sung]
Let the deal go down, boys.
Let the deal go down.

I ain’t got no money, Lord, partner.
I ain’t got no change.

Let the deal go down boys,
Let the deal go down.

[spoken]
There you go Blue Front,
I’ll show you about getting a card and telling a lie about it.
Put up some more money!

[sung]
Let the deal go down boys,
Let the deal go down.

These recordings capture not only Hurston’s voice, but also that of Herbert Halpert, who can be heard off-mic peppering her with a fieldworker’s questioning, trying to gather as much about the game as possible. In other recordings Halpert and Hurston can be heard conversing, folklorist to folklorist, about where she learned the songs, who she learned them from, and how the melody or verses change from place to place. Hurston provides ready answers to each and at times provides exact names of the people from whom she learned the song. At other times she replies, “I just get in the crowd with people and they sing it, and I listen as best I can. Then I start joining in with a phrase or two and finally I get so I can sing a verse … and I sing them back to the people until they tell me that I can sing it just like them … and then I count on my memory.” (listen to: Halimuhfack)

Though the audio of the original performer or the actual card game from whom Hurston learned these songs, rhymes, and verses wasn’t recorded, Hurston’s performance begins to sound like the performance of a folklorist’s field notes, resulting in a richly illustrated context of a game of cards as it is played, sung, and spoken, in a style unique to the art and life of Zora Neale Hurston.

One Comment

  1. Donna
    February 28, 2014 at 3:31 pm

    Thank you for highlighting these oral contributions by the remarkable Zora Neale Hurston. A long time fan of “Eyes…”, it’s a real pleasure to hear her voice in the natural vernacular of those she obviously loved and loved writing about. Modern technology never ceases to amaze me,
    especially when used in the service of the arts. I can now hear the same infectious gumption in her recorded voice that I hear when reading her prose.

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